Opinion & Analysis

To be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated

AN ANIMATED debate is raging in our country and around the world regarding the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines.
In this light, it was not surprising to read a story in the Daily News late last week titled ‘Vaccine uptake pleases doctors’ — as discussions around Covid-19 and vaccines centre around a current issue touching on people’s health. In the 1948 preamble of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) constitution, health is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

Others have since defined it as “a condition of well-being free of disease or infirmity, and a basic and universal human right”. In this regard, access to basic healthcare is generally taken as a fundamental human right and a foundation for socio-economic development — which has made healthcare not just a practical, but also a political issue.

Indeed, and for example, vaccinations upon birth in countries like Zimbabwe are mandatory, where no
one has a choice about them. These early childhood vaccines have a long history of safe use and were developed in line with the requirements of regulatory agencies such as the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe (MCAZ).

Vice President Constantino Chiwenga was the first Zimbabwean to get the SinoPharm Covid-19 jab at Wilkins Hospital in Harare last month.

The difference with Covid-19 vaccines is that they are mainly for adults who, based on informed choice, can decide to take them or not. On this score, it is important for the Zimbabwean public to know, as the Covid-19 jabs debate continues to rage in the country, that vaccines are drugs.

Thus, their quality, safety and efficacy has to be assured because they are subject to widespread variation even between batches during the manufacturing process.

In addition, vaccines require special conditions for storage, while efficient transportation and availability of electricity supply also have to be assured to maintain their efficacy. Over and above this, vaccines are normally given in ‘schedules’ which must be adhered to for whole populations or age groups.

The supply chain cannot also be broken — with all this important for the vaccination programme to succeed in the creation of “herd immunity”, also known as “community immunity”.

Herd immunity for Covid-19 entails the resistance to its spread that is based on pre-existing immunity of a high proportion of individuals as a result of infection or vaccination.

In other words, people in Zimbabwe can collectively stave off the spread of the coronavirus if a certain percentage of the population has immunity to the disease. Science also says vaccinations promote a quicker establishment of
herd immunity, with the number of people needed to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity generally varying according to the disease involved.

To be clear, the world is still learning about immunity to Covid-19. For example, and although people who have been
infected by the disease develop an immune response within weeks, it is not yet known how strong and long this
will last. It is in this regard that many people are still wrestling with the idea of whether they should be vaccinated
or not, and also eager to know when enough people will be vaccinated for life to return to normal. But there is no simple answer to these questions.

What the public needs to appreciate though is that vaccinations may not necessarily result in immunisation against a disease if a vaccine is of poor quality and is less efficacious. To be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated Given this, it is not proper to use immunisation and vaccination interchangeably, as we sometimes see in Zimbabwe, although one often follows the other.

The current inter-changeability of the terms supports a “quick fix” roll-out programme, where corners can unfortunately be cut — especially where politics overrides science. To reiterate, there is so much we do not know about the vaccines that have been developed and are being rolled out in different countries.

Israel is currently the only country which has vaccinated almost 80 percent of its population after it reached an agreement with Pfizer, which gave it the vaccines on the understanding that it will collect all useful information and pass this to the company to improve the quality of the vaccine.

In other words, all side effects being experienced as a result of the vaccines in Israel are being captured, which has caused disquiet among some people in that country because the agreement offers Pfizer access to their health database.

Some privacy advocates are complaining that Israelis are being used as guinea-pigs without their permission. Despite the need for urgency in dealing with the spread of Covid-19, it is clear that the adage “measure twice,
cut once” still holds much water. In order to deal with the vaccine hesitancy being witnessed in some communities in Zimbabwe, the country has to adequately deal with all the questions being raised.

These include those like “If I already had Covid-19, do I need the vaccine?” Here, the answer has been “Yes” because at the moment we do not know how long a person who has been infected with the disease will stay immune. Neither is it known how long the immunity to Covid-19 following immunisation lasts.

All this notwithstanding, it should not be difficult to inform and educate the public in Zimbabwe that there are several factors that influence the immune system — the body’s defence system. The public also needs to appreciate that there are several factors that influence the ability of the body to produce immunocompetence following exposure to Covid-19 vaccines.

One of these key factors is nutrients from the food we eat, as immunocompetence is a sensitive and functional index of nutrition. In this regard, and in spite of the satisfaction captured by the Daily News’ story of last week concerning the uptake of Covid-19 vaccines, one wonders what many of those who are being vaccinated know about the relationship between what they eat and the way they respond to infection, or even the vaccine itself.

Nutrition is the interaction of nutrients in the food and body systems. This means that for the body to be immunocompetent, it has to be supplied with adequate and quality nutrition. The saying goes that, “giving someone drugs who does not eat well is like washing hands in clean water and then drying them with a dirty towel”.

Certain dietary patterns thus prepare the body better for microbial attacks and excess inflammation, such as that caused in the lungs by Covid-19. In addition, each stage of the body’s immune response relies on the presence of many micro-nutrients, not to mention protein, fats and carbohydrates. This is why, in the case of Covid-19 infection, micro-nutrients such as zinc, as well as Vitamin C and D, have been aggressively promoted as useful supplements.

Indeed, there is enough evidence to suggest that poorly nourished individuals are at greater risk of bacterial, viral and other infections. In cases where one cannot always eat a variety of nutritious foods, a vitamin and mineral supplement may help fill the nutritional gaps.

Thus, the public needs to know that good nutrition is crucial for coronavirus vaccines to work more effectively. However, it must be pointed out that it is not just under-nutrition which affects vaccine efficacy. Increased sedentary lifestyles and ultra-processed foods have helped to drive an obesity epidemic that is causing dramatic increases in high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and multiple cancers.

People with these underlying conditions are more prone to serious cases of Covid-19. In summary, the public needs to be well informed about all these issues so that people can make an informed decision regarding whether to be vaccinated or not.  By NORMAN NYAZEMA

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